Paul Belanger and his family moved from Maine to Hawaii seeking warmer weather and work. Unlike many Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society directors, Paul was not a retired service member or military spouse, but he had executive leadership skills in both the nonprofit and local government sectors and was excited for a new challenge. Celebrating his 35th anniversary with the Society this year, Paul has had a long and happy career in a job he calls “interesting and fulfilling.”
During his time with NMCRS, Paul has worked for five Society presidents. “Back when I was hired as a new NMCRS director, we spent three days at headquarters in Washington. Admiral Carnahan, who was the Society’s vice president then, said, ‘you’re going to be my odd bird,’ and he took me under his wing. I’ve always kidded that even though I didn’t have a military background, I could learn how to salute.”
At first, learning the military pay system, acronyms, and terminology proved challenging, but Paul relied on more than 100 volunteers at NMCRS Pearl Harbor, as well as headquarters staff, for guidance. He seems to have figured it out. Since 1983, NMCRS Pearl Harbor has recruited and trained about 4,100 volunteers and served more than 85,000 clients. Under his leadership, NMCRS Pearl Harbor has provided more than $40 million in financial assistance and helped to raise $17 million through the Active Duty Fund Drive.
The Society’s transition from paper records to online record keeping came early on in Paul’s tenure as director. “We took what was filed in more than a dozen file cabinets of casework documentation and converted it all to a digital format,” he recalled. “We had ledger cards and loan balance cards. It was a challenge to digitize all of it, but we got it done in record time, and that was fun.” Paul describes himself as an old school computer geek. He used his tech savvy to convince NMCRS headquarters to let him buy Multi-Plan, spreadsheet software that predates Microsoft Excel, to help automate his office. He created programs in Multi-Plan to track volunteer hours and funds raised through the Active Duty Fund Drive.
“The tracking tool we use now is based on the original spreadsheets I created,” Paul said. “I’m an innovator and I like to do new things.” In fact, Paul helped to develop the online tool currently used by all NMCRS offices to manage their Active Duty Fund Drive participation and results. He’s also traveled to Society offices around the world to help with technology installations and training, as well as conduct casework policy training.
“The most important thing I’ve learned in this job is how to deal compassionately with people, from volunteers to clients to staff,” Paul explained. “Compassion sets the stage for a good interaction and outcome.” Paul advises his staff and volunteers to “’zip it and listen.’ Find out what’s going on, then you can work together as partners to solve a problem. Generally speaking, no one comes here because they’re having a good day. They come because they can’t feed their kids or pay their rent or other bills, or because someone passed away. I tell my team, ‘Put yourself in their shoes.’”
Because the cost of living in Hawaii is high, very few military widows or retirees live on the island, but Paul has fond memories of some. “I remember a Navy widow we helped for many years. She was such a sweet lady and has passed away. She tried everything she possibly could to make ends meet, and we helped her a little, and she was ever so grateful for our help. Sometimes, she would bring us cookies or flowers. In Hawaii, we use the word “Auntie” to refer to elderly women. She was one of our Aunties. We are all family here.”
Congratulations on 35 years of dedicated service to the Society, Paul!
By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso